Television Shakespeare between the wars

3rd November 2016

I was delighted last week to receive a copy of the new Shakespeare Survey volume, no 69, published by Cambridge University Press. This is an annual collection of Shakespeare scholarship edited by Peter Holland – and for this themed issue about Shakespeare and Rome, also by Emma Smith. Nestled towards the back of a hefty volume is my article ‘An Intimate and Intermedial Form: Early Television Shakespeare from the BBC, 1937-1939’..

The article is developed from a paper that I gave at a 2014 conference, organised by Kingston University and The Rose Theatre, focussed on David Garrick and Shakespeare, but I broadened it out from that discussion of a 1939 television production of Garrick’s version of The Taming of the Shrew. As a taster of the essay, I reproduce its opening below – for the rest, can I recommend you access the volume through a library or via an online subscription, as the book is priced at an unaffordable level in the way that academic publications now seem fated to be.

In the twenty-seven months between February 1937 and April 1939 the fledgling BBC television service from Alexandra Palace broadcast more than twenty Shakespeare adaptations. The majority of these productions were short programmes featuring ‘scenes from…’ the plays, although there were also substantial adaptations of Othello (1937), Julius Caesar (1938), Twelfth Night and The Tempest (both 1939) as well as a presentation of David Garrick’s 1754 version of The Taming of the Shrew, Katharine and Petruchio (1939).

There were other Shakespeare-related programmes as well, and the playwright himself appeared in three distinct historical dramas. In large part because no recordings exist of these transmissions (or of any British television Shakespeare before 1955), these ‘lost’ adaptations have received little scholarly attention. In this article I explore the traces that remain of these pre-war broadcasts, paying particular attention to Scenes from Cymbeline, Macbeth and Othello (all 1937) as well as Katharine and Petruchio.


Image: Margaretta Scott (Rosalind) and Ion Swinley (Orlando) in Robert Atkins’ production of As You Like It for Scenes from Shakespeare, 1937.

The surviving records include scripts and production notes preserved in the BBC Written Archives Centre (WAC) at Caversham, listings and articles in Radio Times, and reviews and recollections. I also outline the the production environment and cultural context for interwar television Shakespeare, and detail some of the intermedial connections of these productions with the theatre, radio and the cinema of the 1930s.

Pre-war television Shakespeare in Britain features only minimally in the extensive literature focussed on small-screen adaptations of the plays. In his foundational A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television, Kenneth Rothwell gave brief details of certain pre-war productions and quoted from a small number of contemporary reviews. Critical analysis of these broadcasts, however, has been limited because all television drama until the mid-1950s was played live before electronic cameras, and in the medium’s first decade recording technology had not been invented.

The first BBC television Shakespeare production of which even a partial archival copy is preserved is the 1955 studio production of Romeo and Juliet with Tony Britton and Virginia McKenna as the lovers. This was captured using the recently introduced technique of tele-recording, which involved filming the screen of an electronic monitor on which the live broadcast was being shown.

Tele-recordings exist of a number of BBC productions from the 1950s, including Othello (1955) directed by Tony Richardson, and The Life of Henry V (1957) with John Neville as the king. By the mid-1960s videotape recording was also being utilised widely, although some later broadcasts have also been lost, including the second half of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1968 staging by John Barton of All’s Well That Ends Well and The Tempest (1968, BBC) with Michael Redgrave as Prospero.

Writing about the first years of television drama, John Caughie has suggested that the lack of recordings ‘makes the recovery of the early history of television form and style an archaeological, rather than a strictly historical procedure.’ In his book The Intimate Screen: Early British Television Drama, Jason Jacobs developed just such an archaeological study, acknowledging that the WAC resources were central to his work.

‘This written archive,’ Jacobs detailed, ‘provided programme and policy information—studio plans, camera scripts, memos, etc. – which was invaluable in the process of reconstructing the visual sense of early television drama [emphasis in original].’ Jacobs noted that other published sources were also important, including reviews and criticism published in Radio Times, The Listener and BBC Quarterly.


Image: Production still of the BBC Television outside broadcast of Twelfth Night from Phoenix Theatre, London, 2 January 1939. On stage are Peggy Ashcroft (Viola), Esmond Knight (Orsino), William Devlin (Antonio) and others.

He was more sceptical about the use of stills, because ‘the vast majority of them are production stills, presumably taken during camera rehearsals’, but such images can nonetheless offer useful information as well as a resonant visual sense of the moment. Technical manuals, anecdotal and biographical sources and oral history interviews can also be valuable for the interrogation of this period of television drama.

These traces from the period reveal key concerns about the new medium, including the importance of ‘live-ness’ and a sense of ‘intimacy’. ‘The live immediacy of television is its defining characteristic,’ Jacobs wrote of the ways in the medium was discussed in these years. Moreover, ‘television is a medium of “intimacy”; it is the delivery of images to the private domestic sphere…, and the visual “closeness” described by the television close-up, that are the characteristic features of television.’

One aspect of this ‘intimacy’ is demonstrated by the way in which two or three actors in early television broadcasts are invariably bunched together in publicity photographs, grouped in such a way as to be visible most effectively to the studio cameras with their narrow fields of vision and minimal depth of focus. John Caughie has argued that ‘the absence of expressive mise en scene and editing – the absence, in other words, of “style”’ in this period ‘was the logical aesthetic of a technology whose essence was conceived in terms of immediacy, relay and the “live”.’

Pre-war television was also a profoundly intermedial form that was shaped in significant ways by radio, by the theatre and to an extent by the cinema of the time. The only models available to television producers were those of pre-existing forms of performance, and throughout the writings of both practitioners and commentators, early television is constantly compared with radio, theatre and cinema. Recalling his earliest BBC television broadcasts from Alexandra Palace, the service’s programme planner Cecil Madden, who had been a theatre playwright, wrote,

The only technique I knew was of the stage, so I divided up the studio into three stages behind one another, separated by curtains. The three cameras were placed roughly in line but at different heights… We played an act on stage one, then the curtains parted and cameras moved on to stage two, and then again to stage three. It worked quite well, saved time, was continuous, since cameras could not cut as in films and as television can cut today. Only fades could take one camera to another.’

At the same time, like most television producers, Madden was dissatisfied by the reliance on stage techniques. ‘I wanted to create something that would be pure television, owing nothing to stage or films,’ he wrote in his memoirs.

For more, you’ll have to take a look at the full article in Shakespeare Survey 69: Shakespeare and Rome, published by Cambridge University Press, 2016.

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